Saturday, October 13, 2018

The gulf between the empty states and the crowded states gets gets wider all the time

The Oct. 9 New York Times featured an op-ed give-and-take between liberal columnist Gail Collins and conservative Bret Stephens. It was prompted by the recent dust-up between Dems and Repubs over the future of the Supreme Court. The column had one section that bears repeating because it concerns Cheyenne and Wyoming. The majority of  Wyomingites do not read the NYT because the majority of Wyomingites are Trump supporters and Trump consistently bashes the paper as "the failing New York Times" and "fake news." Instead, these readers get their reportage from the always reliable Fox and the always unbiased Breitbart site. As a public service. I repeat the exchange below. To red the entire column, go to
Gail: That leads me to one of my constant preoccupations: the way this country is organized to disenfranchise urban voters and empower people from rural areas. The 59 million people in California and New York are going to elect Democratic senators. But they’ll be completely canceled out if the less than two million people in Wyoming and Montana decide to go Republican. 
Bret: There you go again, Gail, making the case for democracy. I’m still a republican (even if no longer a Republican), so I’m for sticking with the original design. How about all those blue state voters moving to Kansas or Wyoming instead?
Gail: Instead of “Let them eat cake,” it’d be “Let them move to Cheyenne?” There’s a gulf between the empty states and the crowded states that goes beyond geography.
As a 25-year resident of Cheyenne, Wyoming, this exchange tickled me. My town was mentioned in the NYT, which happens rarely. The conservative writer (with tongue in cheek, methinks) says that blue state voters should move to red states such as mine, thus watering down the yayhoo vote and saving the republic. The liberal pins down the issue when she says that "a gulf between the empty states and the crowded states that goes beyond geography?" Indeed. That span is wider than the Gulf of Mexico, wider than any gulf I can think of.

As a liberal blogger in a red state, I agree with Bret -- let those blue voters leave the comfy environs of Brooklyn and Berkeley and move to Cheyenne. Our small coterie of Democrats welcomes them. Our city of 65,000 needs to grow. Our county, one of 23, used to have the best representation of Dems in the state legislature. No more. 2016 took care of that. Republicans all voted R and Democrats stayed home. Gerrymandered districts helped, of course, the most recent ridiculous changes occurring in 2010 and more to come in 2020 as our legislature is even more right-wing crazy than it was in 2010. And don't forget about the Russians.

That's one of the main problems. As rural lawmakers propose more wackadoodle legislation, the more bad publicity we get and the less likely it becomes that free-thinking liberals want to move here. Expect more bills that restrict voting, LGBTQ equality, protest, birth control, abortion, etc. They will come up with laws that more severely punish marijuana users. Since there are only a few women in the legislature, expect more anti-women votes. But lest you think they are only against everything, the Republican majority will come up with bills promoting oil, coal and gas and the right to bear arms in almost anyplace you damn please.

The irony here, is that Republicans bemoan the fact that their grown children take their educations and put them to use in Denver, Palo Alto and Atlanta. That's where the good jobs are. That's where other young people live and play. Those cities, as Gail infers, is the geography in which young people choose to live. They may want to be close to family, but with the money they make, they can travel to Cheyenne for our Frontier Days extravaganza every July. They can take part in a family reunion, share their success stories, and play cowboy for ten days. Then they go back to their crowded, exciting, liberal cities. From there, they can monitor the boneheaded moves of our legislature and be glad that they escaped such a benighted place. It seems that legislators don't understand how quickly their dumb quotes zoom around the world. We have the Internet now and a 24-hour news cycle. Dumbassery knows no boundaries.

Why do I live in Cheyenne? I came for a job in the arts and stayed. My wife loves her job. Our friends are wonderful people. Surprisingly enough, there is much to do and more events all of the time. And if it's not happening here, it is in Fort Collins or Greeley and Denver, the purplish-blue state that begins 11 miles from my front door. They have right-wing kooks in Colorado too, but there are enough liberals, some home-grown and some imported, to negate their bad influences. Colorado, too, has the disconnect between urban and rural. Five rural northern Colorado counties threatened a secede a few years ago when the legislature voted to restrict gun rights and oil drilling. Rural residents blame Denver for all of the bad stuff. Denver blames their country cousins for all of the bad stuff. I keep close tabs on all of this because I am a second-generation Denverite and my son is third-generation. My daughter was born in Cheyenne but recently made her way to L.A. and Chicago and Salt Lake City and Denver before gravitating back here.

Blue staters are not going to pick up and move to Cheyenne or Casper just to bring some balance to the equation. Red staters will remain in their small towns, come hell or high water (or hurricanes). The gulf between us gets bigger and we all suffer for it.

Where will it end?

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Part VII: The Way Mike Worked -- And the Way He Didn't Work

I was convinced that I could persuade a Florida newspaper to take me on as a reporter. I had very little to base this on. I was an English major who took some journalism courses. I had a work-study job in University of Florida Information Services where I snapped photos of no-neck linemen, worked in the darkroom, and wrote press releases. I worked for two semesters as a general assignment reporter at the Independent Florida Alligator. I had clips from two free-lance articles I did for national publications.

That seemed sufficient. But I had lots of competition. 1976 was a heyday for newspapers. Two young investigative reporters for the Washington Post had brought down a president (imagine that now). Newspaper unions were strong. Most cities boasted at least two papers, some more. Newsrooms had yet to be invaded by computers. I figured that there was at least one paper that needed an eager and creative writer. My colleagues at the Alligator were getting on with the Miami Herald and Cocoa Today which grew up to be USA Today.

I decided to approach my job application as a fiction writer. In my 30 months at UF, I had completed three creative writing courses, one taught by the brilliant and enigmatic Harry Crews. I had submitted scores of stories and received lots of harsh critiques. I felt that I was ready for the rough-and-tumble world of the daily newspaper. I wrote an application letter in the third person. The normal approach was first person, as in "I am the greatest thing to happen to journalism since Gutenberg's press." Instead, I wrote "Michael Shay is the greatest thing to happen to journalism since Gutenberg's press." I typed the personalized letters on my Smith-Corona portable, using plenty of White-Out. I fired them off and awaited positive results.

I waited and waited. I got some form-letter responses, thanks but no thanks. I might have called some editors but my roommates and I didn't have a phone. Our landlady, Stormy, whose notable forebears had one of Florida's largest counties named after them, had the phone. Her house behind us was in worse shape than ours. Looking at it from the front, it seemed to lean. We kept expecting it to fall. When Bob or Bob or I got a call, Stormy would yell at us from her front door. We tried not to be summoned too often as we were afraid of her dog, Joe, who gave us the evil eye. And that's all he had, one eye, as he'd lost the other one in a fight.

I waited some more. A personal response came. It wasn't good news. The editor of the Pensacola paper had accepted my challenge and responded with a letter in third person. I can't remember the exact wording but it went something like this: "The editor of the Pensacola News Journal was  thrilled to received the job application of Michael Shay. The cover letter was very creative and gets an A for effort. As the editor read, he was not so impressed, as it included at least one factual error, a typo and several run-on sentences that were more Faulkner than Hemingway. The editor has marked-up these errors as we do in the newsroom and hopes that the applicant takes them to heart as he continues his job search. For now, this newspaper will continue looking for an experienced reporter." It was snarky and well done, with no typos or bad grammar. I was embarrassed. I always prided myself on sharp, clean writing. How many of my mistake-ridden job apps were floating around the Sunshine State?

A few weeks later, the editor at the Lake City paper called and offered me a job. I asked if I needed a car as I did not have one. He said that I would need a car and I would be covering the county. I said I would see what I could do. It seemed hopeless. I'd had a car earlier that year, a black Ford station wagon I bought for $150 from my friend Mike, a Vietnam vet who worked as a bouncer at a strip club. Mike and I took visiting writer Nelson Algren to the strip club one night and he seemed to have a pretty good time. I got about $150 worth out of the station wagon and sent it to the scrap heap. My girlfriend had a car but she was a full-time student and also had a job. One of my roommates owned a car but he needed it. I had no money - student loans were gone and I'd finished my work-study jobs. I pondered my situation. Lake City was a small cracker town where nothing significant ever happened. I turned down the job.

About this same time, a one-time law student who looked like an aging frat boy was working his way through the West, from his home state of Washington to Colorado. He raped and murdered women.  He was arrested twice and escaped twice, in both Aspen and Glenwood Springs, Colorado. In 1978, Ted Bundy came South and cruised north Florida roads in search of victims. In February 1978, he kidnapped, raped and killed a 12-year-old girl in Lake City. The girl's body was found in a pig farrowing shed near Suwanee River State Park, where I had spent many hours swimming, canoeing and hiking. I always thought that I might have covered the Bundy story had I been able to come up with a car and taken the reporting job in that one-horse town. It's gruesome to think about but it could have happened. Bundy had raped and murdered two sorority sisters and beat up two others that January at FSU in Tallahassee where two of my sisters and many of my nieces and nephews attended college. He was caught later in Pensacola, tried and then executed in Florida's Raiford Prison in 1989. Prison guards celebrated with a raucous party and fireworks. He was cremated in Gainesville and his ashes scattered in Washington's Cascade Range.

I might have written the book on Bundy. That would have entailed me looking hard into Bundy to see what caused one man to become a savage. It would have made me a different person, one I might not have liked. As a free-lancer in Denver in 1982, I wrote a story for an alternative weekly about Colorado cold cases. Some were women who had been kidnapped, raped and murdered in the mountains when Bundy was on the prowl. They fit the killer's M-O. I was surprised to learn later that investigators knew about 30 murders by Bundy but suspected him in dozens of others, maybe as many as 100.

It snowed in Gainesville in January 1977 and our pipes froze. In February, I borrowed a car and went on a job search in Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg. I stayed with friends along the way. I did not return with a job. The money was gone so I moved from Gainesville back home. I was blue. If Florida had basements, I would have been moping in the basement. As it was, I moped in the spare bedroom. I eventually rallied, got a job with a construction industry magazine, and moved out.

Looking back, I see a creative person trying to get a job. Stories surrounded me but I didn't know that yet.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Far from the MAGA crowd: Democrats invite you to Oct. 18 chili cook-off and fundraiser

These are the times that try men's and women's souls, especially if they have souls. From a press release: 

Greetings Fellow Democrats:

After the last few months of Trump and Kavanaugh and McConnell and daily assaults on our psyche, Dems need a safe place to gather and vent. Are you tired of the MAGA crowd? Need a safe place to share like ideas? Looking for some talking points for those upcoming Thanksgiving dinners with conservative relatives? 

The LCDGC welcomes you to its semiannual chili cook-off and fundraiser at the Kiwanis Community House in Lions Park, Cheyenne, Wyo., on Thursday, October 18, 6-9 p.m. Bring your hand-crafted chili, salsa, and desserts to enter into the contests. Winners will receive a fancy certificate which boasts of your cooking skills and Democratic credentials. Suitable for framing and posting on your office wall, further stoking the paranoid delusions of the MAGA crowd fearful of encroaching immigrants, PC liberals, feminist protesters, African-American ex-presidents, and LGBTQ cake bakers. 

Candidates will be on hand to speak about the issues of the day and answer your questions and just in general talk some common sense. 

For further information, contact Joe, 307-630-6192. See you there!

Sponsored by Laramie County Democrats and the Laramie County Democratic Grassroots Coalition.  

I also can answer questions about the event. Comment below. 

Meanwhile, get out there and vote for Blue Wave candidates.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Part VI: The Way Mike Worked -- How I Almost Became a Nurse

The five-year-old boy from New Hampshire didn't talk much. He held up his right hand as the nurse dressed his wounds and I stood by to assist. The tiny hand was imprinted with concentric circles and looked as if someone had given the boy a special tattoo, although he was much too young. The reality was much worse. An adult, his mother, had punished the boy by pressing his hand into a hot electric stove burner. Third-degree or "full thickness" burns. The top layer of skin (epidermis) is destroyed as is the bottom layer -- the dermis. So are the nerve endings. Because the epidermis and hair follicles are gone, new skin cannot grow. The burn must be treated and then skin grafts are applied. This boy was a long way from skin grafting.

He would be in the burn unit for awhile, which is OK because everything was paid for. This was a Shriners Burns Institute (now Shriners Hospital for Children's--Boston), supported by millions raised by the guys with funny hats who drive funny cars in your local Fourth of July parade. I lived with my girlfriend Sharon in a walk-up one-bedroom on the poor side of Beacon Hill. It was winter and very cold. I wished I was on a Florida beach where I had been this time last year. I was cold yet fascinated by the work I did and observed as a nursing assistant/orderly at the hospital.

One morning, as I was getting off of work, the head nurse asked to see me. She asked me if I was interested in becoming a nurse. The hospital would pay for my education. I was stunned by the offer. I was torn, too. Just recently this dropout and former marine biology major had decided to go back to school and major in English and become a notable writer or at least one who got his stuff published. What to do? A secure future in the medical field? Insecure future with the other thing? I chose the other thing.

But not before I discussed it with Sharon. She was pondering the same thing, going back to school to major in nursing. Maybe we could go to the same school, University of Connecticut in Storrs, the place where she'd started college three years earlier -- she also was a dropout. Most of the people we knew were dropouts who went on to do interesting things with their lives. The Shriners staff wanted me to go to school in Boston. What to do?

As I pondered, I walked to my graveyard shift at the hospital and Sharon rode the MTA to her graveyard shift job at Deaconess Hospital in the burbs. She looked good in white. She looked good in anything. She told me stories of "rubbers," the guys who rubbed against women on the subway. One day she waited for her train when a young guy emerged half-naked from the shrubbery and began to masturbate in front of her. Those stories made me want to punch somebody, anybody. It made me want to ride with her every morning and every evening, to protect her. She was good at what she did and knew it. I was good at what I did but didn't know it. The die had already been cast. I just didn't know it.

Two years earlier, I had screwed up my chance of a military career. I know now that it was an act of sabotage. My mentors had lined up to promote my brilliant career. I failed them, on purpose. I didn't want to tell them no. Inside, I said no-no-no. Had I also failed myself? I guess, at 22, I didn't know. Here was another opportunity. It looked mighty good to a young man with no prospects.

When the night was slow, I gathered in a break room with the other nursing assistants. We stayed awake by drinking tea and eating chocolate. Some of the others were already in nursing school and spent the time starting IVs on each other. It kind of creeped me out but who was I to judge? I ran blood samples over to the Mass General lab through a spooky underground tunnel. I'm sure that it was well-used during the day. But at night? There was a camera and squawk box at each end. I pushed a button at the Mass General end and someone would eventually come on the line and asked my identity. I was admitted into the hospital basement. I skipped riding up the freight elevator because it smelled like formaldehyde. "That's where they bring up the dead animals, you know, for the med students to practice on. Human corpses, too. The morgue's down in the basement" The graveyard shift guy in the lab liked to pull my chain. At least I think he was pulling my chain.

Some of our young charges died at night. Burns can be horrific. House fires. Electrocutions. Accidents. Burns do terrible things to a body. Third degree burns with lung damage were bad. Very, very bad. Sometimes children are trapped in fires. Old people, too. Not only are their skins less dense, but their lungs are especially vulnerable. Kids' lungs are still developing. Oldsters' lungs are sensitive to everything.

I bugged out of Boston in March. Sharon and I pledged our love and promised to keep in touch. I hitched up to Connecticut a month later to see her and we drove out to the Cape. She came down to Florida in May and we drove to the Keys and camped. By the end of the summer, we were no longer a couple. I went back to school at the local community college. Sharon went to UConn. I sometimes wonder if she became a nurse or something else. What long and winding road did she take? 

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Library's Sept. 28 Hands-on History Expo explores "The Way We Worked"

"The Way We Worked" exhibit is up and running at the Laramie County Public Library. This Smithsonian-sponsored traveling exhibit features interactive displays on various aspects of working in the U.S. Technology plays a major role, as you might guess. Assembly lines, automated farm equipment, telephone switchboards, manual typewriters, and the dawn of the computer age.

On the library's third floor is a display board that addresses organized labor's struggle through the years. Under a photo of two little boys operating a dangerous looking machine is a selection of labor songs you can select for your listening enjoyment.  I chose one of my favorites, "De Colores," which I had to be reminded was an organizing song. So many great songs and poem came out of the labor struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2018 America, we may need to sing some of the old songs and compose some new ones for Trump's Gilded Age.

For several weeks, I have written a series of posts about "The Way Mike Worked." The most-read one if about the bygone days of paperboys. I've barely scratched the surface of the many jobs I have had in my 67 years, 55 working years. I will keep writing to bring myself up to the present. If you are looking for poems, stories and essays about work, I suggest you check out the anthology "Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking Out the Jams," published by Coffee House Press and edited by Detroit's M.L. Liebler. One of my short stories is included. I wrote about the anthology here and here when it came out in 2010.

On Friday, Sept. 28, 6-7:30 p.m., the library hosts a Hands-on History Expo. Come out to take a look at an antique tractor and a well-digging machine. Watch a weaving demonstration. You might have a chance to type on a manual typewriter and explore an original library card catalog. Ponder those fast-food jobs of your teens and jobs you had as an adult, and maybe ones you wish you had.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Part V: The Way Mike Worked -- Serving Fish 'n' Chips in Shrimp 'n' Grits Country

We called her Mom. She insisted. Never found out her real name. Her husband Tally called her "dear" or "hon" in the Southern way. She was younger than Tally by a decade or so, or so she seemed. Tally walked a limp that we thought came from the war, World War II, the one that all of our father's fought in. He said it came from a gunshot, a disagreement among bootleggers during Prohibition. We had no reason not to believe him.

We met at Long John Silver's Fish and Chips across from the University of South Carolina campus. Mom was the manager. She had replaced our first manager who had been skimming a bit off the top of the nightly deposit. One day he was our boss. And then he was gone.

In October of 1970, I was one of a half-dozen employees, mostly students, at this fast-food restaurant named for the fictional pirate in "Treasure Island." Color scheme was the brown of "a dead man's chest" and the gold of new doubloons. Everything was fried in vats of hot grease that was a shimmering gold when new and a dark brown when old and ready to be refreshed but it was almost quitting time and the day crew could do it. All of us wore grease-spatter splotches on our arms. Meals were served in cardboard replicas of a chest of gold. Sides were fries and hush puppies. Condiments were tartar sauce and malt vinegar that the Brits allegedly used on the fish and chips they bought at street corner vendors in London. My co-workers and I tried to cook up extra food at the end of the night so we could carry some home for late-night greasyspoon snacks.

Fish-and-chips were a new concept in the South. Some customers ordered and then wondered why they got fries instead of chips. We had to explain that in England, fries were called chips. The potatoes were a bit chunkier over there, not flat or curved or crispy, but they still were called chips.

After avoiding work and most of my classes my freshman year, I decided that I needed a job. I had premonitions of bad juju to come. I could read the tea leaves that we used in our sweet tea. I could divine the stars. I also could read the grade reports sent home by the university. I was on probation after a lackluster freshman year. I swore to the Navy ROTC unit's marine major that I was going to do better, really I was. He looked at my grades and the report of my lackluster performance on my first-year summer cruise. I had sailed to Guantanamo Bay and back on the USS John F. Kennedy. I had neglected my duties.

I did, however, distinguish myself during a 1970 Fourth of July weekend leave in D.C. when my BFF Pat and I rescued his younger sisters and grandmother from a stampeding crowd at the Honor America Day Concert at the Washington Monument. The riot wasn't a reaction to another sappy tune by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or another joke by Bob Hope. But a cloud of tear gas launched to disperse the Yippie-sponsored smoke-in at the monument. Pat's and my quick action didn't save any lives but we were proud of it nonetheless. Too bad that didn't show up in my midshipman record. I might have received a medal. "For valor in rescuing civilians threatened by a cloud of tear gas fired on pot-smoking hippies." Something like that. Later, Pat and I and his older brother Mike smoked a joint and talked about what a weird night it was.

When I returned to Norfolk, just before our ship sailed to Cuba, I called my girlfriend and she broke up with me.

I was looking for a new girlfriend when I returned to campus in the fall. I had a crush on one of my fish-and-chips coworkers. Kaley was pretty, blonde and had a wicked sense of humor. She also had a boyfriend, a Vietnam vet named Tim whose hair got longer and shaggier every time he came to pick Kaley up from work. The duo invited me to a party one night. I hung around Kaley and Tim as I didn't know anyone and my short haircut fueled my paranoia and everyone else's, or so it seemed. Tim broke out a syringe and prepared it, junkie-style. He shot up Kaley and then held up the syringe for me. I was almost stoned enough to say yes. But I didn't. Tim proceeded to minister to himself. They were soon in la-la land and didn't notice as I slipped out of the house and walked several miles back to my dorm.

The U.S. Navy revoked my scholarship in January and I was on my own. I could finally grow my hair and major in English. I kept working at Long John Silver's. When spring sprang, Mom and Tally asked me to come to their house and mow the lawn. Mom would feed me lunch. I agreed. It was the first of many trips to their house. By summer, the mowing of the lawn was an ordeal, with sweat streaming off of me and me pining for AC and a cold drink. One afternoon, stunned by Carolina heat, I went into the house. Heading for the bathroom, I opened the wrong door into a bedroom. It had a single bed, a shelf with photos and football trophies. The photos showed a young man in football uniform, in graduation gown, in army uniform.

"Our son Tom." Startled, I turned to see Mom in the doorway. She wore a sad face, unusual for her. She walked in and stood next to me. She picked up the photo of her son in uniform. "Missing in action. Vietnam. We kept his room ready for him but he hasn't come back. Three years now. Our only child." She replaced the photo. "Lunch is ready." She walked out and I followed. Mom and Tally were the same talkative duo they always were. Now that I am an old man, I recognize the relentless nature of sorrow. Sometimes, small talk over lemonade and sandwiches with tomatoes fresh from the garden are the only things for it.

A few weeks later, a traveling circus troupe came to town with a batch of purple haze fresh from the octopus's garden. We had a wonderful time. The circus people left town but I found my jacked-up self in the campus cafeteria babbling over breakfast to a group of exchange students from Hong Kong. They were very polite. And then I was at the university infirmary, knocked down by thorazine.

At the end of USC's summer session, I ended my college career and quit my job as a fish-and-chips wrangler. I left town. My plan was to live at my parents' house and surf until I got drafted.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Part IV: The Way Mike Worked -- This job stinks!

"This job stinks," I complained to Ronnie.

He looked at me over a pile of dirty laundry. Smoke from a Marlboro wreathed his face. He removed the cigarette and exhaled a big cloud. "Do what I do."

I stared. I was dense. "What?"

He unrolled the pack of cigs from his T-shirt sleeve and popped one out. He walked over to me, stuck the cigarette in my mouth and lit it with his Zippo. "Inhale," he said.

I inhaled. I'd smoked a few cigarettes before, usually late at night at a beer bash when anything seemed like a good idea: smoking cigarettes, skinny dipping in a gator pond, driving on sidewalks. In the summer of '69, I was a latecomer to nicotine. My parents smoked, as did most of their friends. Some of my buddies smoked. But I was a jock in high school and coach commanded that we not smoke. I wanted to do what coach said. 

"Watch me," Ronnie said in his Tennessee drawl. He gripped the end of the rolling container with its mound of laundry. You could almost see the fumes coming from the sheets and towels accumulated in 24 hours at the nursing home. "Let the smoke drift up into your nose -- that knocks out the smell." He pushed his cart out the laundry room doors and down the corridor, smoke trailing behind him. I followed with my load. Smoke rose from my mouth to my nose to my eyes. Within seconds, my eyes watered. I kept close to Ronnie, lest I run over one of the dazed oldsters wandering the halls. I was getting it -- the smoke blocked the smell. It also burned my nose and eyes, but it was a small price to pay for not smelling the smells of incontinent old people. I was 18, Ronnie my elder at 25. We were usually not burdened with inconvenient odors unless we let loose with a fart as we drove to our appointed rounds for the Acme Laundry (not its real name) of Holly Hill, Florida. But that was different. We were not old.

When we finally wheeled our loads up a ramp into the step van, our smokes were burned down to nubs. We tossed the butts on the ground as we returned to the truck cab. My eyes still watered as we continued on our rounds. Ronnie was already on another smoke. "See how easy?" he said. 

I just nodded.

I became Ronnie's assistant one hot Florida July afternoon. I worked in the laundry, loading washers and dryers with towels and sheets from old folks homes, beachside motels, and other businesses. I had left my job as bagboy at the Pantry Pride grocery store because I needed to make more money for my upcoming college expenses. The laundry doubled my salary. The work was tougher and sweatier than hauling housewives' groceries out to their station wagons. I hated the laundry, doubted I could make it to the end of August. One day, after Ronnie delivered a load to us peasants chained to our machines, he came over and introduced himself. He was a big guy with Elvis-style hair and tattoos. He looked like something out of 1955 instead of 1969. I probably did too, with my Howdy Doody face and short haircut. 

"My helper just quit," he said. "Want the job?"

"When do I start?"

"Tomorrow at 6."

"Six in the morning?"

He laughed. "See you then."

What a reprieve! Riding with Ronnie started an hour earlier but I didn't care. We hit the mainland businesses first as the laundry only started piling up in the late morning at the beach motels as the housekeeping staff worked their way through the rooms. Sometimes Ronnie picked me up in his muscle car as I had sold my own car as it was a POS after three years of hard use. We knocked off at 3 just as the world really heated up or burst into an afternoon thunderstorm. 

Ronnie just got out of the Navy the year before. He served a stint on a ship off of Vietnam and had accumulated some tattoos and a dose of the clap in the Philippines. He got a kick out of the fact that I was off to be a Navy ROTC student, someone who one day might be an officer giving orders to the likes of swabs like him. For now, he was the one giving orders. "You ain't no officer yet," he'd say if he caught me loafing. "Yes sir," I'd say. His response: "I ain't no sir -- I work for a living. That's what my chief used to say."

I think about my 18-year-old self. I was excited and scared to be off to college. I was sad to leave my girlfriend behind -- she was attending a school 300 miles from me. I loved her and I said so and she loved me, or so she said. What did we know? Our family home burned down that summer but all 11 of us survived. We lived in a small place while waiting to rebuild. Problem was, all the clothes I'd collected for college burnt up in the fire or were impregnated with smoke. Early in the summer my surfboard had been stolen and, for the first time in four years, I felt left out of the beach scene. 

About a week before I quit the laundry, Ronnie took me to his trailer for lunch. He wanted me to meet somebody. We got out of the step van and walked to the door. A woman answered. Ronnie introduced us.. 

"Hello ma'am," I said. 

The woman wore long gray hair pulled back in a braid, a pleasant face etched with tiny lines around the mouth and eyes. "Don't call me ma'am -- I'm Shirley."

"OK, Shirley." 

Ronnie planted a kiss on her lips and I suddenly realized this was his wife. I'd called her ma'am because I thought she was his mother. I was surprised and a bit embarrassed for me and for Ronnie. Shirley served us tomato and mayo sandwiches and lemonade. She as nice and had a good sense of humor. She wasn't really that old, maybe in her late 30s or 40s. Old enough to be my mother but not Ronnie's. As we ate at the trailer's tiny table, she asked about me, what I liked to do, my plans for the fall. 

"You got a girl?" She smiled.

"Yes ma'am..."


"Shirley, I have a girlfriend."

"She's pretty, too," Ronnie said as he chewed. "Drives a Firebird."

"It's her dad's," I said.

"Your girl going to the same college?"

"No. We plan to see each other for football games, and during school breaks.,"

"That's good, hon," she said. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder."  She explained that she and Ronnie met at a Daytona bar after she left Georgia after a bad divorce.They hit it off and married after a few weeks. "Newlyweds," she said.

Earlier I had caught a glimpse of an unmade bed at the far end of the trailer. I imagined the two of them in that bed. I didn't want to but I couldn't help it. The trailer began to close in around me and I was relieved when Ronnie said it was time to get back to work. We said our farewells and that was the last time I saw Shirley. 

As we returned to our route, Ronnie, as if divining my thoughts, said, "She makes me happy." 

I just nodded. He drove the rest of the way in silence.

On my last day at work, Ronnie and I sat in the step van in a motel lot watching the waves break. A half-dozen surfers bobbed in the line-up.

"Those good waves?" he asked.

"Pretty good."

"We could have brought your surfboard with us on some of our runs. You could have done some surfing."

I told him that my board had been stolen. 

He nodded. Handed me his Zippo. On its side was a U.S. Navy emblem. "Going-away present."

"Thanks," I said. "I may try to give up smoking."

"No matter. You can light some of your marijuana cigarettes with it."

I laughed. "They're called joints, Ronnie."

"No matter. All you kids smoke it. My shipmates did. A lot of the guys in Vietnam. I tried it a few times. Just made me tired. I'll stick with beer and whiskey."

I thanked him again.That afternoon, I said my farewells to Ronnie and the laundry. My girlfriend picked me up. A week ;later, we said our own forlorn farewells during a last walk on the beach. 

Somewhere along the line, I lost the lighter and I lost my way. Shall I pin the blame on marijuana cigarettes? It's more complicated than that. 

Blogger's Note: I changed the names of the characters in this piece and the name of the laundry. I had to reconstruct the dialogue because it was 49 years ago and I wasn't taking notes. Most of the rest of the story is true. 

Another blogger's note: The Laramie County Public Library kicks off the fall season with the Smithsonian exhibit, "The Way We Worked." Sponsored by Wyoming Humanities, the exhibit "engages viewers with a history of work." It opens Sept. 22 and runs through Nov. 13. Grand opening is a "Hands-on History Expo" on Sept. 28 where you can "dial a rotary phone, draw water with a hand pump, enjoy old-fashioned refreshments (make your own ice cream!) and much more." You can see antique tractors, a wheat-washing machine and an old-fashioned library card catalog. I viewed the exhibit-in-progress yesterday. Great display of tools used to mine, log, and build railroads and dwellings in the West. I finally understood the difference between a dugout and a sod house or "soddie." One thing I know -- I would have gone stark-raving mad living in either one.